What Games Are: Sports And Video Games

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer and creator of leading game design blog What Games Are. He has recently moved into managing developer relations at OUYA. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Though I was never a big fan of sports as a kid I’ve often found them to be valuable as a lens to interpret video games. Sports are usually played in real time and under limited conditions, and they require both skill and smarts to succeed. Sports are usually played with abstract goals in mind, such as scoring points. Sports usually have an overriding win condition, and winning is essentially the whole point of playing. So are many video games. 

Traditionally a big difference between sports and video games is that most sports are played multiplayer, but most video games are played single player. To some it’s only a matter of time before that happens but personally I think not. There isn’t and never will be a pressing need for a game like Gone Home to go multiplayer. The world is not crying out for The Stanley Parable to become a team sport.

However another traditional difference between sports and video games is slowly disappearing, and that is whether they are watched or played. Sports have long been a spectator activity, whether in guise of physically going to see a match or watching on TV. But video games were supposed to be about the playing rather than the watching, and so were a private activity. Who would really want to watch you play through a game?

Well it turns out the answer to that question is “everybody”. Live streaming, speed runs, let’s-play, spectator matches, social video sharing and so on have all quickly become big business. According to figures recently released by Twitch.tv, 12 billion minutes of video game coverage was watched on their service in 2013, doubling 2012’s number. 45 million people tuned in to watch video gaming. 6 million videos were broadcast on their service. And, perhaps most incredibly, the average viewer spent 106 minutes per day watching.

Anecdotally I see people all across my Twitter feed talking about games they’re watching or broadcasting. Just as soccer fans often share best-goal clips on Youtube, it’s become a thing in video games to share around best-run clips from games like Spelunky or big battles from League of Legends. I know several friends who have streams open all day long, for example, almost like listening to the radio while they work, and what’s even more fascinating to me is the degree to which their conversation around the games they watch is starting to look like sports chatter.

Streaming of video games creates all sorts of legal gray areas (if I stream-play a narrative-driven game and essentially share the story with 100 other viewers, has the game maker lost 100 sales?) there’s no denying its appeal. But there’s still a distance to go before the participatory culture emerging around video games crosses over into the mainstream. Even though Twitch.tv’s numbers are very impressive, for example, they are dwarfed by real-world sports. Video games have not yet built to that level.

For example this weekend the streets of Seattle are filled with an urgent hope. Thousands of flags are flying high, everyone’s wearing indigo-and-green sports jerseys and a chant can be heard in every pub and bar. It starts with one person shouting “Seeeeaaa” and the crowd responding “Haawwwks!”, and then again and again. The big game has come against the rival 49ers (boo hiss) and the winner gets a shot at the Super Bowl.

There’s really no video game equivalent to that kind of cultural ubiquity. Not yet. One missing piece is television. Sports are so influential because they’re on TV, and TV is in homes and bars and everywhere else. TV is focused through channels and so mass attention can still be harnessed through it. Indeed sports are one of the few kinds of programming that can still do that. And while some sports (such as WWE) start to evolve from pure TV shows into more rounded services, TV is still the primary point of access.

Digital game streaming has gained a foothold on TV through devices like gaming consoles and media streamers. They also have tablet apps and so can get to TV via technologies like AirPlay or Chromecast. But as yet there’s no serious coverage on regular TV (in the West at least), no dedicated channels on cable, nothing that could conceivably be easy enough for a sports bar to show. While arguably certain parts of the TV model of doing business are going away anyway, the easy access that TV can provide is still not quite in-reach as of yet.

Another missing piece is familiarity. The NFL is so popular in the U.S. because of its deep roots in schools and communities that keep the passion of the game alive. The same is true of soccer in Europe and many other sports in different parts of the world. People grow up with these sports and so are inducted into their culture from a very early age.

Video games are very different in that respect. For one thing they’re still seen as outsider-enough by the people who don’t consider themselves “gamers” (but play Candy Crush Saga in bed every night) and still believe that games rot the brain despite all the evidence. Set against that backdrop can be hard to see how they cross the gap into acceptance, but in reality those kinds of attitudes are increasingly held by the minority. We’re all geeks about one thing or another these days and we’re slowly allowing ourselves to admit it.

Finally the third piece is the pace at which video games change. Sports are vast and relatively unchanging rule sets that transcend the generations, and their rules often become colloquial terms of reference. A home run is a home run, same as it was 100 years ago, and that has cultural value.

Few are the video games whose appeal lasts five years, never mind 100. There are always new hits, new innovations and new genre kings. This years’s big first-person-shooter becomes last year’s with great regularity. And so to really enjoy a service like Twitch you arguably need to know something about video games in general, to be a part of the constant ever-evolving culture. So there’s an accessibility gap of the kind that TV has great difficulty with. TV is generally unable to broadcast the dorky and the geeky without injecting it full of cringe, and maybe this is why eSports and Twitch and the like have not made it onto ESPN yet. 

But surely that’s only a matter of when, not if. As TV continues to be disrupted regardless and new entrants to broadcasting emerge that don’t play by its rules, it’s entirely conceivable that those blocks will just go away. Will a day come, for example, when Twitch offers a subscription service to gamer bars rather than sports bars, where the establishments themselves change to get in line with where the viewers are going?

Of course it will. One day, maybe sooner than you think, the fans in the streets will be cheering for their digital teams.